(This article appeared in the SABPP Newsletter, June 20017

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring whether your  company’s Employee Wellness Programmes (EWP) and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) are giving you bang for your buck and are achieving what they are designed to do – improving the wellbeing of your employees! (For the purpose of this article we will discuss EAP’s and EWP’s together in an attempt to cover the broadest possible spectrum of employee wellbeing). Available research (primarily out of the USA) strongly supports the benefits of effective EAP and EWP interventions, for example, Johnson and Johnson leaders estimate that wellness programmes have cumulatively saved the company $250 million on health care costs over the past decade and a return of $2.71 for every dollar spent between 2002 and 2008. (Leonard L. Berry, Ann M. Mirabito and William B. Naun Harvard Business Review Dec 2010.) Many companies however still see wellness as something intangible and difficult to measure, and so opt for a ‘bare minimum’ approach to EAP and EWP solutions. This tends to lead to disappointing returns on investment and little or no improvements in employee wellbeing. This will be the focal point of our discussion.

In our fast paced world, we are required to devote over 50% of our waking hours to the companies that employ us. In addition, with technology, it is common place to take work home to meet stringent deadlines, conduct conference calls after hours, service client needs after hours, take calls from the office and so on…..We never get to switch off, and being constantly ‘switched on’  in loyal service to the company is considered a badge of honour! People are suffering the effects of the fast paced lifestyle that modern business demands and chronic physical and mental illness are reaching epidemic proportions in many industry sectors.

Against this backdrop, it stands to reason that the need for companies to look after the wellbeing of their biggest assets, their people, has never been greater. Companies have a very real ethical responsibility to its devoted employees and what’s more, a healthy staff means greater productivity and bigger profits. Enter EAP’s and EWP’s.

EAP’s and EWP’s are in principle very necessary and have the potential to effect significant change on the wellbeing of employees, and some undoubtedly do. Broadly speaking EAP’s are employee benefit programmes that are concerned with your employees mental and emotional wellbeing providing assessment, support and referral to help employees find relief or assistance on matters that may impact or affect their ability to function properly on the job. They cover areas such as substance abuse, family matters, emotional distress, work relationship issues, work life balance, financial matters and almost anything relevant that makes the life of the employee a little easier both at work and outside of work,  for example, assistance with the enrolment of children into schools, etc.

EWP’s on the other hand aim to keep your workforce fit and hardy and cover primarily areas of physical wellbeing.  They include services such as health screening, education about the prevention and treatment of health conditions; they may offer medical advice/support services including education, support and the provision of opportunities for exercise, relaxation and healthy eating. EAP’s and EWP’s may overlap depending on the way they are structured and together they complete a comprehensive and holistic picture of employee wellbeing.

EAP’s and EWP’s are often driven through Interactive software programmes in which employees have their own personal online wellness portal, a ‘one stop shop’ that provides seamless access to the above mentioned services, as well as access to call center and online support and other valuable resources to employees and HR/ wellness professionals including: information resources on topics related to health and wellbeing ; marketing resources to create awareness around health campaigns eg HIV/AIDS; peer education programmes in the form of online courses, workshops aimed at equipping wellness champions with the skills to drive the company wellness agenda; software to track absenteeism, compliance and the like.

In addition, EAP’s and EWP’s are delivered in part through medical insurers offering wellness days at which assessments are conducted and professional support provided both onsite and online. Furthermore, comprehensive executive medical programmes offering assessment and interventions addressing a broad spectrum of mental emotional and physical components of wellbeing may form part of the EAP/EWP offering. Some companies also offer onsite clinics/gyms and wellness centers.

As you can see, EAP’s and EWP’s are often delivered together, seamlessly as a comprehensive employee wellbeing solution. So how is it possible that something seemingly so valuable may not be delivering bang for your buck?

 An over-reliance on technology

Companies in which there is not a well-established culture of wellness tend to view EAP’s and EWP’s as a necessary evil, an intangible  that simply has to be complied with to keep staff happy and ensure the necessary health and safety legislation boxes have been ticked. In such cases, the simplest, most cost effective solution to reach as many people within the organization as possible, with minimum input from HR departments (who are already over -burdened with what the company views as more important issues) is opted for. These are your software driven, automated EAP and EWP services, like the online programmes providing information, online and call center support, data analytics, peer educator campaigns and the like for which companies would typically pay a nominal monthly per person rate (say R10 or R20) for a bouquet of services.

On the face of it, the thought of paying R10 or R20 per person for a comprehensive bouquet of services  is very attractive for companies, the information they provide is often very good  and there is a great deal of perceived (and potential) value in them. The way in which these services are structured and marketed by service providers: a turn-key solution into which companies can plug, giving staff access to private online wellness portals, call center support , information resources, analytics software etc, it is tempting as wellness or HR professionals  to fall into the trap of thinking you can simply plug in, sit back and watch the health and wellbeing of you company’s staff improve. What’s more, you reason, that if the staff don’t make use of the amazing services on offer, hey, well that’s their choice, management has played their role, they’ve  provided the necessary tools, wellness is taken care of, time to focus on the hard issues of business, making money!

So, ultimately, the company is happy, it has ticked all the wellness boxes with minimal expense incurred, the EWP/ EAP provider is happy, it has sold the company a bouquet of services (primarily automated software driven solutions that doesn’t cost them very much, and is not likely to be used extensively by staff (software alone does not create compliance), and so gets paid per person  to service a high volume of people but actually does relatively little, it’s a good business model.  What about the health of the employee? Well, in many cases that deteriorates or remains unchanged year on year despite all the sophisticated software driven EWP and EAP solutions on the market.

A service is only of any value if people use it, and in wellness and behaviour change, technology alone does not drive participation and compliance, for that job you need PEOPLE! If people drive compliance with wellness programmes internally, for example, a well-organized wellness committee and wellness ambassadors, logic dictates that staff will use the EAP/ EWP services more, (including call center support and the like).  For non-automated services, if every organization made full use of their EAP/EWP bouquet of services, this would ultimately drive up the costs of running the services in the long run as the need for man power would increase (more personnel required to run call centers or respond to queries, more onsite services or coaching services would be required to meet employees needs etc). These costs would ultimately be passed onto the consumer, in this case the company. All of a sudden, EWP/EAP services don’t look so attractive to those companies who are simply looking for an inexpensive solution to tick a wellbeing box. Off course, if staff were that driven to improve their wellbeing, the additional investment into them would pay handsome dividends in the long term, seen in reduced absenteeism, greater productivity, reduced risk of injury, lower medical insurance costs, better staff retention etc (something some companies see as intangibles that they can’t see the value in, which I’m happy to say is a trend that is changing).

Good software is an incredibly valuable tool, I use it to great effect in my own online coaching business, but it is just that, a tool to be used strategically BY PEOPLE to effect change. When you rely on software as your primary EAP/EWP driver, in our experience you’re unlikely to see any significant uptake in participation and compliance rates and therefore minimal or no change in employee wellbeing. There is a need for a healthy balance between software driven solutions and strategic thinking by management and staff, driving wellness initiatives internally.

So the question that faces companies is this: do we spend a nominal amount per person for a software- driven, automated solution that fulfills a basic requirement, and expect little or no improvements in the health and wellbeing of employees? Or do we invest in creating a wellness culture, driven internally by staff within the company that may require more additional capital outlay, but for which we are likely reap the rewards in the long term? For us the answer is simple: as a business there is no sense in putting money into something that is unlikely to yield returns. Success is always a long game (wellness initiatives need to be developed and nurtured long term) and investing in the development of people can never be money wasted. So, invest in software driven EAP/EWP solutions, but only once you have invested in the development of a wellness team that can maximize their benefits as one of many valuable tools to drive a wellness culture.

Wellness is a team approach and driving a wellness culture requires foot soldiers with a shared knowledge base, passion and vision. No one can do it alone, and as a standard recommendation companies should aim for one wellness ambassador for every fifty to one hundred employees. In a corporate climate in which employee volunteer programmes (EVP) are taking center stage in driving  CSI initiatives in many companies, finding passionate volunteers to train and upskill as wellness ambassadors is not a hard sell, particularly if it means greater opportunities to improve the wellbeing of health conscious volunteers whilst at work. Here are some pointers to help you in the process:-

  • ·Develop a team of wellness ambassadors consisting of representatives from all tiers within your company, from senior management, to department heads, supervisors, office workers and team leaders (the committee)
  • Choose your team according to their passion and the example they set for living a healthy lifestyle. These are your role models.
  •  Upskill your team with the knowledge of company policies procedures, a holistic knowledge of wellbeing and understanding of systems to drive the wellness agenda.
  •  As a team, create a shared vision, values and objectives for wellness, aligned to those of the company.
  • Understand the wellness needs of your company through conducting and analyzing surveys and assessments.
  •  Look for the business case: Ask yourself as a committee, what is the company’s vision, goals and objectives, what is the current wellbeing profile of our staff, and where does it need to be in order to achieve that vision, objectives and goals?  Companies have great ambition and it’s going to take a strong, healthy and resilient staff contingent to achieve its objectives. This is a great opportunity to use your software wellness analytics to determine wellness parameters and objectives that will translate into rands and cents returns.
  • Set short, medium and long term goals, and plan your wellness programme accordingly monitoring continuously for improvements. Remember, you’re in this for the long haul.

All this sound like a lot of work, but with the right training, guidance and the implementation of good systems, it is possible and with minimum capital outlay. Ultimately, employee wellbeing is about good business and developing your greatest asset, not only to retain their loyalty and to do the right thing but  to drive your company’s success well into the future.